What David Attenborough loves about natural history, he says, is that it is for everybody: “You can be straightforward and fascinate the 7s and 70s” he explains to New Scientist. And while the gorillas and the polar bears he investigates have certainly helped ensnare his audiences for decades; what he fails to note is the part that he has played in making the natural sciences so accessible.
Since he began working for the BBC in 1952, the 86-year-old ‘eco-god’ has authored over two-dozen books , several musicals, and written and presented countless and much-adored natural history documentaries (most notably the Life and Planet Earth series). Although his first programmes were presented from a London studio, things evolved in 1954 when he first broadcast Zoo Quest, a documentary chronicling a series of animal collecting expeditions, which saw him travel to Africa, South America and Melanesia. Through the medium of television, Attenborough has brought the natural world into his viewers’ living rooms, awakening wanderlust and curiosity in his audiences as a direct result.
Over the last 60 years, Attenborough has become something of an icon. Knighted in 1985 and voted one of the 100 Greatest Britons (of all time), the subsequent string of awards, recognitions, and titles which follow his around are too great to mention here. Although highly impressive, it isn’t difficult to see why he is so revered- his passion and endless wonder are infectious traits, and make his programmes, and the content within them, completely captivating. His documentaries, although written for adults, appeal to audiences of all ages. He explains animal behaviour as a story that keeps viewers young and old on the edges of their seats without succumbing to anthropomorphism, the cardinal sin of the zoological sciences. And he isn’t afraid to admit that, like the rest of us, he has beccome teary-eyed while observing the suffering of the creatures he loves.
Attenborough has given the world far more than books and TV programmes. As the popularity of his work has grown, so has our awareness of conservation, extinction, and climate change events – a result of his teaching and cautioning. Attenborough warns that human development and population growth must be curtailed and believes that education is the key to this responsibility. While highlighting the issues faced, he remains modest and refreshing, reminding us that it is those who live around these animals who are responsible for their fate: “Africa must decide what to do for itself”.
After over half a century, his work continues to fascinate and to inspire- and he insists that the natural world still has more to offer. If you haven’t seen BBC’s Africa yet, treat yourself and set aside some time to watch it. Beginning in January of this year, he presented David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities, a five-part series dealing with the weird and wonderful evolutionary quirks of animals (including the narwhal and the chameleon). As for what his future holds, he promises us that he isn’t done yet. Lucky us.
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